Google’s Transparency Reports – Not That Transparent


No one disputes that the Internet has become one of the primary and central objects in all of our lives. Almost everything and everyone is connected through a series of invisible signals and waves that travel through the air and provide us a digital platform for sharing information and staying in touch with one another.

With the exponential increase in the use of the Web and with more and more people linking themselves and their lives with accounts on it, governments have a new tool to perform surveillance on their citizens.  With the increasing trend of social media usage, governments have increased the number of requests they send to online platforms for data reports regarding the services they have provided to customers.

Google, which is currently the most used and accessed online platform, released its latest transparency reports last month. Through the reports, it can clearly be observed that the requests for the personal data of citizens by the Federal Government are at an all-time high. These reports are released every six months, with the most recent highlighting the results and facts and figures for the 2nd half of of 2015.

Out of all countries around the world, the United States is at the top of the list, having requested personal data on 27,157 user accounts (a total of 12,523 times) during the six months that this transparency report covers. All nations, collectively, made 40,677 requests about 81,311 users or accounts, with the United States comprising the highest percent of requested data.

Those concerned with these increasing numbers argue that, while private citizens often take extreme measures to prevent others from entering and hacking their personal accounts, the government’s ability to simply request access to their private data (access is granted more than half the time) is an abuse of power and invasion of privacy.  Of course, governments assert that this invasion is only done for the ultimate benefit of the country as well as the citizenry as a whole. They point out that the increased use of social media for communication and execution by extremist groups, makes it necessary for them to increase surveillance and security in all possible ways. Their ultimate argument surrounds the “greater good” – compromising some privacy to save lives.

While I can see both sides of the coin, and would welcome some heathy discussion on the topic, I’d point out that these “transparency reports” really are not all that transparent.   Aside from basic quantitative facts and figures regarding the requests made by each country, nothing more related to the content of these requests is revealed.

Jeffrey Dorf is the Editor of The Data Center Blog and President of the Global Data Center Alliance

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